There Are No Words

May 1st, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

As promised, I have posted the story that I mentioned yesterday: “There Are No Words“. Sometimes when writers get asked which of their stories is their favorite, they say something like, “Stories are like children, you love them all equally.” Not me. I have definite favorites, and although I would be hard pressed to pick one that represents the absolute best of my work to date, there are some that I just flat-out like more than others. “There Are No Words” is one of these.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. The story takes place in a near-future version of Olympia, which is where I live now, which was incredibly fun to write. Writing a post-literate society that was neither utopian nor dystopian was a very rewarding challenge (that I think I pulled off pretty well, as most of the people who have read the story only noticed that something was “different” without really being able to put their finger on it). I didn’t plan it, but the story ended up being about two teen girls’ friendship, which is something that I don’t come across a whole lot in my reading. Finally, I got to deal with one of my pet peeves, which is that writers seem to find it easier to write stories with zombies or spaceships or magic than to write a story without some sort of automobile analog (seriously, if you are writing in a post-peak-oil setting, don’t have people driving around in cars, also, horses for riding are and have been incredibly expensive).

So why am I posting this story here rather than selling it? First off, it is about 9,000 words, which is about 3,000 words too many for most markets. Second, I tried to sell it to YA markets and the very first word in the story was “Shit!”, probably not the best idea (I have since revised it to “Ostras!” which is more profane but obscure enough to not raise many red flags; it also fits the setting better). Third, the story opens with the characters in an Augmented Reality game that involves ghouls (originally zombies) and I suspect that some slush readers never made it far enough in to find out that the story has just about nothing to do with zombies. Finally, this story has a lot of ideas and leaves some of them unexplored, deliberately (one piece of feedback I got from an editor was that they loved the story but that it was both too long and too short, which is to say that they felt it needed to decide whether it was the first chapter of a novel or just a short story; I agree with this analysis, but have decided to go another route, and plan on writing more stories in this setting that link in and explore some of the concepts).

Without further ado, here is the first bit of the story. Enjoy!

“Ostras!” Emma yelled, and then started to run. “Cat, the ghouls saw me!”

Catalina echoed the sentiment under her breath, and followed her friend as she sprinted through the crowd of undead. The ghouls must have recently fed, because they barely noticed two of them as they ran. She yelled at a ghoul on a bicycle that almost ran her down but immediately regretted it when the nearest ghouls looked at her with expressions of anger. But of course they weren’t angry, ghouls didn’t get angry, they were probably just starting to get hungry again. She needed to get out of there.

“That was a close one,” Emma said when Catalina caught up to her in an alleyway.

“Way to throw your best friend in front of the train, Em,” Catalina said, panting from the mad dash that had been required to catch up to her friend.

Emma threw up her hands. “You were surrounded. If you weren’t able to get out of there on your own, there wasn’t anything that I could have done to help you.”

Catalina punched her friend in the shoulder. “And honor, did you forget about that?”

“Honor is just what boys call stupidity. I’m not going to get eaten over that,” Emma said.

“Whatever. We need to get moving before they find us,” Catalina said.

They started to move again, walking through the deserted alleyway, but with less urgency than in the street. Catalina and Emma relaxed as they made their way deeper into the maze of alleys that ran through Olympia’s Downtown Island. In different circumstances, they could have taken one of the water taxis that clogged the canals, but with the ghouls, that was out of the question. So they walked along their route, keeping just a block or two away from the street away from the deeper alleys that resounded with the sounds of drinking and gambling and other sounds, no less disturbing for their indistinguishable nature. They did see an occasional ghoul in the alleyways, but they just hid and waited and the threat passed.

Finally, they emerged into the brightness and heat of Percival Landing with its food carts and sleek fiberglass ferries. They had made it.

“This is getting too easy,” Catalina said.

“Agreed; we need to find a new game,” Emma said.

“See you tomorrow?” Catalina asked.

“Of course.”

The two friends parted ways, Emma heading towards the ferry that would take her up the Deschutes towards her home in Tumwater and Catalina heading towards the ferry that would take her to the Eastside.

As she walked, she held her left hand out in front of her, palm down. A black rectangle was tattooed on the back of her hand, and she pushed her thumb in the middle of it. A moment later, her System had read her thumbprint through the interface pad that had been layered into her skin and verified it.

Immediately, the harsh sunlight dimmed, while the colors of the buildings and plants and everything else intensified. After an hour of staring at the fading colors of the city, it took her brain a few seconds to acclimate. Her System polled the network and information began to populate on the people that were walking around the park, until varicolored icons and numbers hovered over each of their heads. She knew that the same thing was happening with her, and suddenly the people who had been oblivious to her presence glanced in her direction before going about their business.

Catalina boarded a ferry bound for Ellis Cove. As soon as she stepped aboard, two icons appeared in the center of her field of vision, one showing a coin, another an icon of a stick figure rowing. She had the money to pay for passage, but there was no need to spend it, so she focused on the rowing figure, causing the coin to fade into the background. A moment later, the coin had faded entirely. The rowing icon blinked out of existence and a green line that only she could see appeared on the ground in front of her. She followed it and was guided to a vacant oar. It would be a few minutes before the ferry would be full enough to leave so she flipped through the news icons to see if anything interesting had come up while she had played ZomCom with Emma. Nothing had, but her school icon was blinking, indicating that she still needed to put in some school time for the day. She focused on the icon until it was activated.

A moment later a tutor avatar blinked into being on the bench next to her, a figment of her System. The tutor cleared her throat, and began to speak.

“By the end of the twentieth century, the world had–“

The tutor was a woman somewhere in her 30’s of indistinguishable ethnicity. In fact, everything about her was vague, forgettable, with the exception of her voice, full of excitement bounded by precision. The meta for the Academy said that they had scoured the globe to find the best lecturers on any given subject and contracted them to record the lectures. Catalina believed it, but even so, she wasn’t in the mood for history, and canceled the lecture. The tutor avatar vanished.

The rowing icon flashed to the middle of her vision, overlaid by green arrows chasing each other around in a tight circle. The arrows would rotate at various speeds to indicate the tempo, but she immediately banished it to the corner of her vision, opting instead for music that would modulate its rhythm to keep her on pace.

The academy software returned to the center of her vision, a menu of icons arrayed in front of her. Each icon was color coded to show how much time she needed to put into it. Catalina ignored these metrics, and instead chose the only icon that was already green, the branching network of dots that represented Abstract Concepts. Immediately, a Go board popped into view. She went first, placing the black stone by concentrating on an area of the board and then tapping her fingers to select the proper intersection, the fingers on her left hand moving the reticle up and down and the fingers on her right hand moving it from side to side. She knew that she wouldn’t have a lot of time, so she had set the game up on a 13×13 board rather than the standard 19×19. The game was over by the time the ferry reached Ellis Cove, with the System winning by 3 points. A moment later a notification blinked in the corner of her vision, the Abstract Concepts icon overlaid by a green +6, not that she needed the points.

When the ferry neared an image of hands releasing an oar popped into her field of vision, but she had already let go. A moment later, the oar was locked into the docking position, raked down almost parallel to the hull. The ferry’s small motors engaged, swinging it around and bringing it to rest against the dock. People queued up and filed off the boat. A coin notification blinked at her, with a green +3, the minimum payment for a shift at the oars.

There were only a few people waiting to board ferry for the trip back downtown, which meant that the people staying on the ferry to take it back downtown would make at least twenty or thirty credits. Rowing ferries didn’t pay enough to live on, but for someone still in school, it could make the difference between a fun summer and instant noodles.

From the dock, she walked uphill through the trees until she reached the road. The bicycle traffic was heavy, and she was torn between waiting for an opening and walking a hundred meters out of the way to use the overpass. Finally, a gap opened and she dashed across. Fifteen minutes of walking along a footpath that wound its way through moss-covered trees and she was home.

Read the rest of the story.

Writing: Profession or Hobby?

April 30th, 2015  |  Published in announcement, writing

Over the last few months, I have had to reevaluate my approach to writing. Do I look at it as a profession or a hobby? I had always looked at it as a profession (albeit one to which I aspired rather than belonged), now I need to learn to look at it as a hobby. This is not to say that I am planning on taking it any less seriously (indeed, ask my wife about my board games and you will get an exasperated explanation of how seriously I take my hobbies), but rather that I am changing what I expect to get out of it.

There are several reasons for this. I have a two year old at home and have recently changed to a position that both requires more of my time (40 hours rather than 32) and can be significantly more draining (I tend to miss a lot of my breaks and I actually need them to relax now, which cuts into my writing productivity). This lack of time has led to me allowing my writing to cause me anxiety (when the opposite should be true), but that anxiety has more to do with my expectations than with the quality of my writing. Simply put, when I worked in retail, writing was a sort of long-term hedge against, well, working in retail. My thought back then was that if I were still working in retail in a decade, I would have enough quality fiction to base a business model off of. As it is, I like my job (and have for several years now), and even if I made enough money writing to get by, I don’t think I would want to give it up. So even though I feel that the quality of my writing has improved, my emotions have suffered. Finally, I have no desire to do the whole self-promotion thing, I don’t suggest my stories to people who don’t first indicate an interest and I don’t nag them about it. I feel that this is a great attribute for a writer (or an artist of any kind, really), since I really don’t want to be that guy who is always trying to get you to read his story. All of this adds up to writing as a hobby.

So what does this mean for you? Well, if you deal with me personally, it hopefully means less moody Tom. It should also result in more blog posts, as I enjoy blogging, too, and it will likely benefit from a less adversarial relationship with my other writing hobby. Finally, it will mean no more sitting on stories. Sure, I’ll still try to sell them first (I mean, why wouldn’t I?), but I’ll go for the most likely outlets and then just put them up here (and Amazon and Smashwords). As it stands, I have three stories and a couple of pieces of flash fiction that are ready to go. I’ll try to get them out in May (it being National Short Story month and all), and I hope to have the first of them up tomorrow. Either way, thanks for sticking with me.

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Proportional Response

April 27th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

This morning there was an attempted shooting at a high school about five miles from my house. Thankfully no one was injured. What struck me most about it, though, was the fact that I was only mildly surprised at the news. School shootings have become common enough that I am no longer shocked by them, even when they are close to home (granted, I am sure that my reaction would have been very different if my son went there or if I knew anyone who attended or worked there).

Now take another almost-tragic event, the shoe bomber. His attempt was also unsuccessful, but anyone who has flown since 2001 is aware of his legacy as they proceed, shoeless, through security checkpoints. What would gun policy look like if our country reacted on the same scale to what are becoming semi-regular school shootings?

I’m not going to talk about what we should do as a country about either of these issues, as it would distract from my point: It is highly unlikely that our systemic responses to these two issues are both correct, and they could both be wrong.

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Ongoing Hugo Drama

April 17th, 2015  |  Published in Uncategorized

You may or may not have heard of the kerfuffle around this year’s Hugo awards. If you care, you probably already know about it, if not you probably have no interest in having me explain it. In any case, i just read a fascinating essay on the subject by Eric Flint. What’s more, he has a lot of interesting stuff to say about awards in general, and even if you aren’t a F&SF fan you should give it a read.

Best books of 2014

February 11th, 2015  |  Published in commentary

Okay, that title may be misleading, it should say “Some books that I read during 2014 and think that you should, too” as some of these books were not published in 2014 (Lady of Mazes was published in 2005, for example). Of course, if I were to actually put that as the title, the Headline Writer’s Guild would blacklist me (don’t laugh, they are scary, secret, and very powerful. haven’t heard of them? my point exactly). In any case, you’ve made it this far, so I should probably give you some actual content. This is a list of books that I read and enjoyed last year, and is not in any particular order.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison – Far and away my favorite book of last year, but also the one I am most hesitant to recommend. Watching the main character, Maia, trying to do the right thing without letting his new position destroy his values was amazing. I loved everything else about this book, too: the setting, the plot, and the language. The last one is kind of the issue, however. The book is full of jargon, and it was annoying to have to refer to the glossary in back constantly. But then I realized that perhaps the author was trying to have me experience the same thing that Maia was going through; just as Maia was overwhelmed by his new position I was being overwhelmed by the jargon. When I stopped worrying about knowing exactly what people were talking about and just allowed myself to experience the slight confusion as I read, the book really came together for me. Which is precisely the reason that I have such a hard time recommending it, as I can see it being too literary-minded for many fantasy readers and to fantasy-minded for many literary readers (which isn’t to say that fantasy readers can’t handle heavy literature or vice versa, but rather that they have different preferences). In any case, best book of the year, go read it (but make sure you read at least two chapters, the first chapter has a different tone than the rest of the book, and doesn’t give a good sense of what you’re getting into).

Red Rising by Pierce Brown – Imagine a Science Fiction dystopia that reads a bit like Lord of the Flies if all of the characters started off as sociopaths. Red Rising (so far, it is only the first installment in a trilogy) is everything that I wanted The Hunger Games to be. It is dark, but amazing. I loved it. The audiobook was fantastic, too, I could listen to that guy read the phone book. Also, some people seem to think that this is a Teen book, and yes, the main character is a teen, but the book is very adult in its sensibilities, expect to be horrified not just by the things that the characters do (though it really isn’t that graphic, the worst of it happens offscreen), but by the cold, rational way in which they go about it.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway – I had made an attempt to read Harkaway’s first book, The Gone-Away World, a few years back but it didn’t take. I tried it again this year after hearing that I really needed to read it from a trusted friend (thanks Linda!). It was brilliant. Then I read Angelmaker, Harkaway’s second book. It has a lot of the same elements that made Gone-Away World so good, but in a tighter, more finely-crafted package (hence why I chose it over the debut). Imagine a British, leftist Neal Stephenson (Angelmaker has some parallels with Cryptonomicon, actually) with pop culture sensibilities writing about things like identity and free will. These books take some work, but they are pure fun and totally worth it (usually I don’t care much about ‘style’ and ‘voice’ but I would read a technical manual on the manufacturing of manhole covers if Harkaway were to write it). The audiobook of this was great, as well, the narrator reminded me in turn of Jason Statham and Bill Nighy (favorite line: “I can sue anything.”). I would not be surprised in the least to see Tigerman on next year’s list.

The Martian by Andy Weir – While not my favorite book of the year, this was definitely my most recommended book of the year. At this point, something like half of my coworkers have read it due at least in part to my proselytizing. If you like Science Fiction, read it. If you like adventure (particularly man vs. nature), read it. If you like space, read it. If you like gallows humor, read it. If you like entertainment, read it. If you like science, read it. If you are not completely dead inside, you should read this book (and if you are dead inside, read it anyway, it might help, who knows). Instead of summarizing the plot, I’ll just go ahead and suggest that you click on the link and read the description on Goodreads.

Rome: An Empire’s Story by Greg Woolf – History books usually aren’t my thing. I’m not reading them to build the foundation a master’s thesis, I’m reading so that I can get some sense of the general patterns of the world. Rome: An Empire’s Story is exactly what I want in a history book. It takes a close look at a handful of periods of Roman history that exemplify what was happening in the empire. It was entertaining and informative, and it never outstayed its welcome, thanks in part to its brevity. If you are reading for more serious reasons, however, I would still recommend this book. It covers a lot of things, and has a truly massive reading list included, making it a great place to start for the more academic minded.

Lockstep by Karl Schroeder – Karl Schroeder has long been one of my favorite short story authors, but his novels hadn’t grabbed me the same way (the Virga series was good, but not great, in my opinion), until this year. Lockstep is his shot at reinventing space opera, a genre which I usually don’t go in for, and it was amazing. The central idea is that of a culture that gets around resource scarcity and lack of Faster Than Light travel by hibernating in lockstep. Everyone goes int cryostasis for thirty years, then wakes up for one month, then goes back into stasis. This allows them to live in marginal environments by having machines stockpile resources while they hibernate. As a side benefit, if someone travels to another planet several light years away, they would spend the entire transit asleep, meaning that it would just be like waking up the next day on a new planet. This book is everything that epic science fiction ought to be: mind-bending and hope-giving. Unfortunately, it also has a terrible cover. Look at it: two generic people in some sort of . . . environment (perhaps it is the future, perhaps it is a Japanese luxury hotel, who can say?). Yay? It would be a perfectly fine cover for a thriller or a novel without cool visuals . . . but Lockstep has Denners. What are denners, you ask? Picture a cross between a cat and an otter, with embedded net access. Adorable and really freaking cool. So why the hell aren’t they on the cover? In any case, read the book, it is excellent.

Lady of Mazes by Karl Schroeder – I tried to keep this list down to one book per author (see entry for Angelmaker, above), but Lockstep and Lady of Mazes are very different, and each is very cool in its own way. Whereas Lockstep reinvents space opera, Lady of Mazes takes a shot at the singularity. It is set in the far, far future (complete with implanted computing and ringworlds), but is really about (for me, at least) social media and the incursion of the virtual into the real (see Google, Facebook, etc), and the ways it will affect us. Whereas reading one of Schroeder’s short stories is like having a firecracker set off in your mind, this is like having a whole damn string of the things, but you are having such a good time with the pretty lights and loud noises that you hardly notice that your worldview is being tampered with. This is a big, sprawling adventure like Lockstep, but where Lockstep was largely about family, this is largely about society. Also, they didn’t botch the cover.

Darkbeast Rebellion by Morgan Keyes – A juvenile book, really? Well, yes. A sequel? Yeah, that too, so this also, perforce, an endorsement of the first book (Darkbeast). This book may be aimed at younger readers, but it is more emotionally mature than 90% of what I read (and to be clear, emotionally mature does not mean sex and violence). The book manages this by talking to its audience, not at them. The reader gets to watch as Keara makes mistakes, deals with them, then grows up a little. Aside from that, the world is fascinating: every child gets magically bonded with an animal (their Darkbeast) and is taught to give their animal all of their undesirable traits and impulses. The catch is that, when they turn twelve, they have to kill said Darkbeast. In the first book, Keara refused to do so, and this book is the continuation of her struggle to survive the continuation of that decision. As far as I can tell, the publisher only contacted Keyes for two books in this series, and although it comes to a satisfying conclusion, I really, really hope that more get written.

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Top 11 board games – 2014

January 30th, 2015  |  Published in board games

Anyone who spends enough time around me knows that I love board games (some of them no doubt wish that I would shut up about them, sorry Jennifer). Over the past couple of years, their importance has grown for me. Aside from being fun, when I play board games, it is something that I can focus the entirety of my attention on, allowing me to stop thinking about work or whatever might be stressing me out. That benefit, combined with providing a framework for social interaction (talking to strangers is a lot less awkward when you have something to talk about, board games are perfect for this), makes board gaming an ideal hobby, for me at least. So what am I talking about when I talk about board games? Monopoly? Risk? Not really. Both of those are board games, yes, but it in the same way that an Apple II is a computer: it is, and it was really cool when it came out, but it has long since been superseded by vastly improved computers. Modern board games are a huge and varied thing these days, and looking at the shelf of your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) for the first time can be an experience akin to looking at the craft beer section of a well stocked supermarket: You know sort of what is going on in front of you but you don’t have a good idea if you’ll actually like whatever you pick out. Towards that end, I am putting together a list of board games that I enjoyed playing in 2014.

This year, I logged 166 plays (not of 166 different games, mind you, Star Realms alone accounts for 24 plays). I have put together a list of my top 11. They aren’t games that came out in 2014, necessarily, but they are games that I played in 2014. In addition, I’m restricting myself to games that I’ve played at least twice, as a game can seem great the first time around then fall flat on the second play. These games aren’t in any particular order, I’m not going to attempt to figure out if one is better than the other given that I like them all for different reasons with different people in different conditions. Without further ado, here’s the list:

Star Realms – Star Realms is a light, competitive deckbuilding game. To my mind, deckbuilders come in two flavors, “Dominion” and “Ascension”. Dominion style have a common pool of cards for players to buy (which is how they build their decks) that doesn’t change much during the game, as there are multiple copies of each card. Ascension style games also have a common set of cards that both players can buy from, but the selection changes from turn to turn and there are only a few duplicates (of weaker cards). Both styles of game have their strengths and weaknesses, so I won’t go into which is better. Star Realms is part of the Ascension family of games. The thing that makes Star Realms stand out is how quick and inexpensive the game is (15 minutes and $15) and how much player interaction there is (the goal of the game is to destroy your opponent, not to collect victory points like in Dominion, which can feel like multiplayer Solitaire). If you’re on the fence, the app is free and very good. Recommended for: anyone who wants a light, inexpensive, deckbuilder; recovering Magic: The Gathering players who want something to scratch the itch without taking over their lives and ruining their credit scores.

Puzzle Strike Shadows – This one is another deckbuilder, but in the Dominion style. It doesn’t play as quickly as Star Realms, and is much more expensive, but I the gameplay is deeper (lots of combinations and permutations while still remaining very balanced). The really cool thing about Puzzle Strike is that instead of cards, you play with chips (think poker chips made out of cardboard) which you draw out of a bag rather than shuffling. As shuffling is the most annoying part about playing deckbuilders (you usually start the game with ten cards that you cycle through very quickly, meaning you spend a lot of time shuffling a tiny deck, which is just annoying). I picked up Shadows rather than the base game because it is a stand alone expansion and my wife liked the art better. I plan on getting the base game this year. Recommended for: people who want a rich and highly interactive deckbuilder.

Mr. Jack Pocket – Mr. Jack is a classic asymmetrical deduction game in which one player plays as Jack the Ripper and the other as Sherlock. Players take alternating turns trying to confound their opponent (Sherlock attempts to narrow down the pool of suspects and Jack does his best to avoid this). I liked the original, but I felt that the setup and rules were too cumbersome for what was actually going on. Mr. Jack Pocket (or Jack Junior as my wife affectionately calls it) fixes all this. It does not attempt to miniaturize the game, but rather reinterprets it in such a way that the game is distilled down to its purest essence. The setup, rules, and gameplay are elegant enough that I can teach the game to a new player and get two or three full games in over the space of an hour with enough time left over to eat lunch (I have done this a few times now). All of this without sacrificing the depth of the original. Recommended for: people who want a quick and intense two player game with high portability.

Province – Province is the first microgame that I backed on Kickstarter. A eurogame small enough to be shipped in a letter envelope and streamlined enough to play in 25 minutes. It is not a heavy game by any stretch, but there is a surprising amount of depth here. This sort of game is also one reason why I love shorter games: its brevity creates a sort of freedom, you can try all sorts of crazy strategies and if they don’t work out, you haven’t spent two hours in the learning. For $5 I can’t think of a reason not to buy this game. Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Burgoo – Another microgame that cost $5. This is my go-to lunchtime game for more than two players (although it plays quite well with two, as well), it is easy to teach, short, and being a game about soup, the theme fits perfectly. After I received it, it sat on my shelf for about a month, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually play it (it had been an impulse purchase) and the rules didn’t immediately ‘click’ for me (through no fault of their own, the mechanics are different from anything else I’ve played before, as soon as I actually started to play, it all made sense immediately). Once I gave it a shot, however, I absolutely loved it. It feels quick and light, but the endgame can turn into a bit of a brain burner (in a good way, as I usually play it at lunch and while one player is thinking of how to screw over their fellow chefs everyone else is actually eating, no one gets bored). Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Vikings – Vikings, you know them: longboats, horned helmets, axes, pillaging. This game has nothing to do with any of that, instead focusing on the other stuff they did, namely founding settlements, trading, and farming. This game consists of six rounds in which players take turns buying island tiles and viking meeples from a really clever rotating rondel that adjusts the prices for things as each turn progresses. The game plays quickly (about an hour), has plenty of indirect interaction, and is full of interesting decisions. I had been wanting to try it for a long time but it was out of print, so when I heard about the reprint I requested a copy from my FLGS. Money well spent. Recommended for: anyone looking for a quick mid-weight economic game.

Waggle Dance – One of my goals this year is to spend less money on Kickstarter, particularly for larger companies who are using it as a preorder system. I have nothing against that, personally, but it screws with my budgeting. So, going forward, I want to shift my  focus to backing games that might not succeed without me. Waggle Dance falls squarely in this category. It met its funding goal, but just barely. And man is it a great game. It is all about building a hive and making honey, with each player having a ton of dice representing bees which are used to take actions. It feels really elegant, has beautiful design, and you get to chuck a ton of dice (each player can get as many as eighteen, though ties are broken by the player with the fewest bees, which makes for a really interesting dynamic). Recommended for: anyone looking  for a “dicer placement” game that can range from light-weight lighthearted filler to a cutthroat medium-weight game.

Dungeon Lords – “Well, everyone got what they wanted this turn.” Wait, I must be thinking of a different game. Dungeon Lords is a game about building a dungeon and killing pesky heroes, in which you never have quite enough actions or resources to make things work out like you want them to. That might sound kind of harsh, but I absolutely love this game. It is hard (even when I win, I feel like I’m losing for the entire game), but very rewarding (even when I lose, I have a great time, partially due to the shared suffering of the rest of the players). The learning curve is steep (expect to spend some time learning how things work before royally botching your first game) and the game isn’t for everyone, but if you know someone who owns a copy, you need to at least give it a shot. Recommended for: people who are distraught that things are just too easy in their lives; people who want to feel like they have accomplished something, even when they lose.

Tzolk’in – Tzolk’in is one of those games that looked as if it might be a flash in the pan when it came out in 2012. It is a worker placement game (a game in which the primary mechanic is placing pawns–“workers”–onto a limited pool of actions that are available to the other players, too). It has a beautiful board with a giant rotating gear in the center. When it first came out, I thought that its popularity might be due to the novelty of the board, but it turns out that there is a solid game underneath those rotating wheels and that it does some interesting things with the mechanic. Usually in a worker placement game you take turns selecting actions and once everyone is out of workers, you get to do the things that you chose. In Tzolk’in, however, the workers stay on their spots until the player chooses to remove them, and because those spots are on gears that get rotated by the central wheel, the longer you wait to pull off your workers, the better the actions you can do. When combined with the variety of paths to victory, the result is a game that is packed with interesting decisions. Probably my favorite game of all time. Recommended for: anyone who isn’t afraid of some brain work.

2 de Mayo – When people ask me about games that I love but that no one seems to have heard about, 2 de Mayo is my go-to answer. It is often referred to as a wargame, but it lacks many of the stereotypical hallmarks of the genre: it is not a long, sprawling, complex game, but rather a short, tight, focused brain-burner. It plays really quickly (30 minutes) and I’m glad for that because I don’t think that I could handle it for any longer. The game is about Napolean’s invasion of Madrid on, you guessed it, May 2nd. The Spanish player’s goal is simply to survive ten turns and the French player is trying to destroy all of the Spanish forces while controlling all of the city entrances. The result is a cat-and-mouse game that is combined with secret orders and simultaneous actions. I may not always be in the mood for it, but I love it. Recommended for: People wanting a quick, tense filler. History buffs (the rulebook has an overview of situation and all of the event cards are based on things that actually happened).

Brass – I should be clear that I’ve only played this game twice and don’t know it nearly as well as the others on this list. That being said, I love it. It is the heaviest game on this list, I think, but doesn’t feel dry. I love just about everything about Brass, but there are a few things that stand out. First, I love the canal/railway dichotomy. Halfway through the game, all of the canals that you’ve spent so much blood and treasure building become obsolete, but most of the buildings in the cities that they connect stay around, leaving a very interesting puzzle as players have to rebuild the infrastructure. Second, it does interdependence very well, as you can sell cotton through your opponents ports benefitting them in the short term but possibly wrecking their timing (as they might have trouble selling their cotton after that. Finally, I love the theme. For me, well done theme means that the game feels like what it represents (Cash N Guns, for example, definitely feels like you are getting screwed over by your criminal associates), and Brass feels like a bunch of entrepreneurs scrambling to ride the tide of modernization. Recommended for: people who like economic games but want some flavor, too. Anyone watching Peaky Blinders.

Games I’m excited to play this year: Taluva, Panamax, Harbour, Impulse, Republic of Rome, and Tigris and Euphates. More on those in a future post.

Thanks to Zach Havok for pointing me to the post (worth checking out, by the way, as is the rest of the blog) that inspired this list, by eclectic blogger Keith Law. Zach is also the reason that the list is eleven items and not, say, ten (he really likes eleven, I guess).

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I know nothing about Robin Williams

August 12th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Well, that may not be quite true. I know that he was in a bunch of films that I enjoyed, but I have no way of knowing how similar on-screen Williams was to off-screen Williams. So when I ascribe things to him, know that I am talking about neither of those people, but rather the version of him that lives in my head (who probably has little relation to either). That being said, he died yesterday. Well, off-screen Williams died, on-screen Williams can still be watched and there are millions of versions of himself running around inside the heads of just about everyone who has been influenced by him. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, the Robin Williams who lives in my head says not to mourn him. As far as I can tell, Robin Williams made the world a better place, and that is a truly noble thing. I won’t catalog the things he did, as others will do a much better job of it, rather, I will repeat what I learned from him: Laugh. Laugh at things that are hard to laugh at. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the things you take seriously, and if you can’t laugh at them, I would suggest that perhaps you aren’t taking them seriously enough. If you want to honor his memory, lighten up and make the world a better place, and maybe go ride a bike.

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Hey, I wrote a story about that . . .

August 6th, 2014  |  Published in writing

When writing science fiction, every once in a while you will see something that you wrote about actually happening (much sooner than anticipated). It’s weird, but makes sense. But when writing fantasy, not so much. A while back, I wrote a story called The Ash Tree (it’s available for free at Broken ShoresSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere so you should go read it if you haven’t already). It was the first story that I wrote in the Broken Shores setting, and it is still one of my favorites. One of the central elements of the story was the eponymous ash tree in the courtyard of a residential block (thanks Azby Brown for the architectural inspiration) which had many kinds of fruit and nuts grafted onto it. So I was kind of surprised to read about just such a tree the other day. Granted, grafting isn’t exactly new, but some of the early readers had told me that the grafted tree was a little ‘out there’.

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Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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And now for some good news

May 20th, 2014  |  Published in Misc

Smashwords (where I have a bunch of stuff) has just announced that it has partnered with Overdrive (the company that most libraries use for ebooks). This is awesome on a number of fronts. First of all, authors on Smashwords will have the opportunity to sell to libraries and get exposure through them. Second the publishing industry has been very reluctant to sell ebooks to libraries (and when they did, often selling them at exorbitant prices) and it appears that libraries will be able to purchase from Smashwords at pretty much the list price (although there is a price floor of $1.99 due to Overdrive). This move will hopefully add some leverage to the library side of things (after all, they do have budgets for procuring new material and it is more difficult to set one-sided terms if there is an alternative). Finally, this will allow libraries to better work with the independent and local community. All in all, good news.

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